Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Cost Of Guesswork

-By Tim Bruckner

Just a few Years ago: So, you’re a sculptor.  Hands-for-hire. You’ve gotten a job to translate 2D to 3D. Action Figure?  Statue? The concept has been approved. It goes to your AD. Somewhere, along the line, the concept has been given to an illustrator. Why?  Because he or she is going to produce something called Control Art.  Don’t let the name scare you.  It’s a good thing. The illustrator reviews all the applicable reference and then produces a set of drawings. These will be your guide in translation.  You will receive drawings showing you at least two, if not four to six, views of the piece you’ll be working on.  And if there’s some little tricky bit or some detail not seen in these turn-arounds, you’ll get a drawing showing that ss well. On top of all that, you will also get reference. This will have been compiled for you by your AD, who will have gone through a bunch of stuff to find just the images that apply to the work you’ve been hired to do. You will get all this in a package.  When you have it in your itchy little sculptor’s hands, you will get on the phone and you will actually talk with your AD about any potential problems, be they technical or interpretive before you start the job. And (and here’s the crazy part) should you run into something along the way, something you hadn’t anticipated, you will get on the phone and, in real time, solve that issue, so you can go back to work and bring that puppy in on time and budget.

What’s missing? Guess Work. Ain’t nothing can throw a job out of schedule and over budget (your budget) than Guess Work.

Now: It’s a different world.  A while ago, companies, in their ever increasing desire to reduce costs and increase profits, decided Control Art was too expensive. You had to pay an illustrator. They aren’t cheap. But how do you get product done without Control Art. Eureka! You have you an approved concept.  This will have been green-lighted by marketing. This will then be handed to a design team. The Design Team will assign the job to an Art Director. Somewhere in there, there will be a sketch. And I do mean a sketch. Not every time. There maybe be an actual piece of art culled from somewhere.  But, often, just  a sketch to indicate what it is the Design Team is looking for. If there’s no sketch, you may receive Cobbled Art. This is art literally cut and pasted together from various unrelated sources.
An arm from one image, pasted on the torso from another image. A head glued onto the torso from someplace else… You get the idea. Hence, Cobbled Art. This is your guide. In additional you may receive reference. The likelihood of it all relating in some meaningful way to the job at hand is remote. Often, the reference you’ve been given contradicts each other. When you receive all this, along with your budget, you may get to speak with your AD. Maybe. But more than likely, you get an email. From then on, that’s how your work will be critiqued. Emails. You’ll send in images.  Dozens of them. And you’ll get emails back with your images Photoshop corrected. Sometimes, these corrected images, although make perfect sense on the monitor, do not always translate into actual physical space. The arm that’s been corrected to look as if its ready to throw a punch, from another angle looks like its serving tea.

This goes on, back and forth, until you’re not sure what you should be doing. What you KNOW you should be doing is “keep moving”. Just “keep moving”. What you end up doing is presenting your AD with a series of options.  Some he/she will like.  Some, not so much. Finally, they’ll be enough approved on the table that you’ll be able to go to finish. Don’t look now, but that deadline?  The one that had to be met at all costs? Long gone.

Guess Work; expensive and time consuming, is the result of the new and improved business model promoted and practiced by a number of the larger collectible statue companies. The responsibility of product creation shifted from The Company and its team to the sculptor. Show me something. I like this.  I don’t like that.

There are kind of valid reasons why they think this works. But what doesn’t work is Guess Work.

A return to the days of having a company deciding what they want and how they want it and give you the tools you need to accomplish it, to this old, tired, over-the-hill sculptor make so much sense, it defies logic NOT to go back to it, in some measure. In the long run, it saves time, and since time IS money, it saves that too. The company gets just what they want just when they want it.  And a job you’ve budgeted time for comes in on time and you make some money.

Having said all that, there are still those maverick AD’s, who came up in the not too distant “old days” that do everything within their power to adhere to a more common sense approach. I’m working with one now. We have phone conversations that last, maybe, five - ten minutes, problems solved. As opposed to two days of emails where things just get more confusing.

Maybe things will shake out and a mix of both approaches will be what works. We’ll see.  I hope so.
The Exception: There are still clients that want your input. They give you the sketch and the reference with the intent that you’ll bring something interesting and original to the piece. These are dream jobs. They’re out there, still. Not many, but there are out there.  If you come across one of them, savor every moment and give everything you’ve got to it. You don’t know when you’ll get another one.
Oh, and Happy Christmas to all!


  1. Great post Tim. Very impressive work too.
    I'm an in-house Illustrator and twice a year I get to design pretty much all the 3D resin collectibles for our company. I used to sculpt (still do a bit) so I try really hard. I try to think through all that transcription stuff in advance, to get the technicalities sorted so the creativity survives the process. I'm in awe of our Chinese sculptors and feel a lot of sympathy for them. But I don't get nearly enough time to do my bit, so often I also feel sorry for them.
    Recently our company was reduced about 50 percent with redundancies and now, instead of what you describe above, I can walk over to Marketing and ask them what they meant by that, what they want from this piece and, when necessary, explain things too. The problem comes from too many links in the chain between those who commission and those who create.
    Obviously I have mixed feelings about what happened to us but you're right, it's a more sensible workflow.

    I think this is the ideal workflow:
    One client who actually knows what they need asks a single intelligent, experienced, intermediary to hand a thorough, well written brief over to an artisan who knows what they're doing. They can all sketch better than a child and all email and talk easily whenever they need to.
    Is that unrealistic?

    Would love to hear from anyone who's actually experienced that. Must be nice.

  2. In comercial art today, there is never enough time to do the project right, but there's always enough time to do it over.

    1. Ha! I'll have to remember that!

    2. That's a brilliant comment Jose, I need to keep that one in the quiver.

    3. That was the unofficial "battle cry" of the department I used to work in at Disney, I cant recall who was the originator.

  3. I've only done 2 sculptures for mass production (around 2002) and in both cases I was responsible for the designs, including the control art. I didn't necessarily mind that since I had never experienced anything else, but the good thing was that I was dealing directly with the top management. Definitely missed my deadlines, though. Great post, Tim!

  4. I am in the middle of one of those right now. Deadline was 10 days ago and now they are giving me time to "fix" what should have been explained more clearly from the outset, let alone caught when they "approved" my sketches. Now I get to spend all weekend making them happy. Argh!

  5. Wonder if they'll reduce it still further to Design Contests, and the winner gets some small monetary pittance, maybe a completed figure, and "LOTS of EXPOSURE." So they can work for even less, next time, with all that "Exposure."

  6. This happens to me so much in the film industry! Even the Cobbled art aspect. It is so sad how most pre-production work is simply a distasteful amalgamation of previous "successes". Bummed to hear that it happens in your industry too. So much time could be saved if qualified illustrators were hired for complete turn-arounds, and if gutsy and decisive ADs were hired that wouldn't feel content with just riding the coattails of last month's box office hit. I have had some project managers that were really gutsy with their concepts, and the result were some really great visuals. Mostly venting here, but also making a call to ADs, project managers, and artists to step it up and get efficient, creative, and inspiring. Just because copy/paste functions are there doesn't mean it should be used to make the next generation of "art". Let's try using our minds instead. (Short rant over, just to spare you all...)


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